What Does The GAC Mean? Opportunity

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If there is one thing that stands out for this 2004 edition of the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference (marking our 70th anniversary as the nation's premier trade group for credit unions), it is this: Opportunity.

In fact, credit unions have reached a level of strength, cohesion and wisdom that is as high as it has ever been throughout our 70 years of representing the movement. Consider just some of the positives:

* Credit union membership numbers are more than many would have ever dreamed of 70 years ago: 83.8 million, which represents nearly 30% of the nation's population.

* The vast majority of credit unions-nine in 10-are members of their state league and CUNA, which enables us to present a united front on the issues that really matter to the future of credit unions.

* We have diligently planned and nurtured an environment of dynamic advocacy for credit unions-sponsoring regular visits to Capitol Hill, maintaining a vigorous political action committee, collecting facts about credit union voter strength and community commitment, meeting with key federal agencies, and much more -that has projected an image of astute effectiveness by credit unions.

With a growing and loyal membership, a united front and a thoughtful and meticulous approach to building political strength, we are ready to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Or, if need be, to make opportunities on our own.

And that is precisely what we have done.

Late last fall, Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) introduced the Credit Union Regulatory Improvements Act (HR 3579), which we call "CURIA" for short. Reps. Royce and Kanjorski, in bringing forth the legislation, showed a particular concern and interest in helping credit unions to be as flexible as possible in meeting the needs of their members in today's marketplace.

CURIA, by way of background, contains important provisions to update the Federal Credit Union Act. It also addresses "real-world" issues for credit unions, such as smarter application of prompt corrective action (PCA) for credit unions, and more reasonable restrictions on credit union business lending.

But, behind the scenes, CUNA has been working for several years with those two veteran members of Congress and several others in developing the legislation. Further, we have listened to credit unions about their needs and frustrations, particularly in the wake of the passage of HR 1151, the Credit Union Membership Access Act.

Make no mistake: the passage and enactment of HR 1151 was a solid victory for credit unions. But that legislation was developed and passed during a time of crisis. Without CUMAA, it is no stretch to say that credit unions may have been on the verge of collapse by now, just six short years since the Supreme Court's decision upholding a ban on select employee groups.

Yet, it is true that the application of HR 1151 has resulted in some unintended consequences for credit unions. In particular:

* Harsh restrictions on credit union member business lending that prevent serving a growing need of members.

Rigid application of capital standard requirements that limits a credit union's ability to keep up with membership growth.

* Additional hurdles for mergers which actually discourage credit unions from voluntarily merging, even if that merger means better service for their combined memberships.

Even when HR 1151 was signed into law, we all knew that not only were these nagging consequences on the horizon, they would have to be addressed in the very near future. But we also knew that we had to tackle these challenges from a position of strength. To that end, we focused on developing our political programs, improving our communications network, and building stronger relationships on Capitol Hill and Washington in general.

Our strong track record in dealing with issues before Congress has also been instrumental in assuring that CURIA was not only introduced, but receives a fair hearing as well. (In fact, a hearing is on tap for sometime next month. Significantly, this hearing is likely to focus on credit union and regulator views of the bill-not banker reaction.)

A quick look at the recent record provides examples of CUNA's leadership:

* Ours was the only national trade group to testify before the full House Financial Services Committee on legislation to reauthorize the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), ensuring that a credit union voice was heard in the legislation that was ultimately enacted, the Fair and Accurate Transaction Act (FACT).

* We recognized the benefits that increased efficiency from the "The Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act" (Check 21) would present to credit union members, and were thus alone among credit union groups in testifying before House and Senate Committees considering the legislation. Again, our support and action ensure that the legislation ultimately enacted reflects credit union unique needs.

* The association's gritty determination in championing bankruptcy abuse reform legislation has played a key role in keeping the legislation alive-even at times when its demise appeared almost certain.

The positions, determination and action that we have taken has paid impressive dividends to allow us to take advantage of any and every opportunity to advance credit union interests-including that now presented with the introduction of CURIA.

Philosopher Sir Francis Bacon once observed that "A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds." Truly, these are words for the credit union community to live by at this point in our history. At CUNA, we have been living this philosophy in working to bring CURIA to the forefront.

The legislation most likely will not be considered and passed overnight. Most important, however, is that important issues in this legislation are placed on the table, allowing Congress to be in the position to address them in the future. And that can be either as part of CURIA, or some other vehicle.

As the GAC unfolds, credit unions will be urging their members of Congress to get on board and become a co-sponsor of CURIA.

And, most likely, credit unions will present co-sponsorship with a simple phrase: "Have I got an opportunity for you!"

Dan Mica is president and CEO of CUNA.

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